17 April 2013


Allan Chapman. Slaying the Dragons: Destroying Myths in the History of Science and Faith. Lion Hudson, 2013.

The history of the relationship between Christianity and the development of Western science is a complex subject, which gives rise to much misunderstanding and confusion, some of it probably deliberate, among people who are not very familiar with the subject. There are many myths about the role of religion, as well as ignorance about the involvement of churchmen in scientific work.
Potential readers, though, should not expect an entirely unbiased approach to this subject, as the author takes this opportunity to make a spirited defence of Christianity.

The book starts with a brief summary of the origins of religious belief and scepticism. Chapman remarks that in recent years interest in the relationship between science and religious belief has been stimulated by the "writings of New Atheists, extending from Richard Dawkins back to Bertrand Russell". I note that the New Atheists seem rather like a stage army, the same few names cropping up again and again! He also notes the activities of biblical literalists as influential, though not so widely read.

We then get more detailed descriptions of the facts and arguments, beginning with informing us that there is nothing new about atheism, or about conflict between different religious communities.

Particularly important for many readers will be the section which deals with the notion that the Church has always been opposed to science and has persecuted scientists in defence of its irrational ideas about the real nature of the world. In my reading I have usually found that scientists who write popular books on astronomy are often the worst offenders in this respect. For example, they simply repeat the allegation that Galileo was prosecuted by the Inquisition just for saying that the Earth orbits the sun. In fact, he first got into trouble, as Dr Chapman reminds us, for casting horoscopes (hardly a scientific activity). Altough he had plenty of warnings to put his arguments on a sounder mathematical and observational basis, he resorted to gratuitous insults to those who questioned certain details of his findings. Perhaps if he had followed the advice he was given he would not have made the mistake of insisting that the orbits of the planets were perfectly circular, rather than elliptical.

I remark on this matter at length because those who get their facts wrong have no excuse, as a number of excellent academic publications on these matters are readily available.

Another important topic involving apparent conflict between science and religion is the 19th-century controversy about evolution, and here Dr Chapman gleefully disposes of the mythology which has grown over the years concerning the debate between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (left) and T. H. Huxley at Oxford on 30 June 1860. This was about Darwin's then recently published On the Origin of Species, and the mythical version of the debate was that Wilberforce denounced it and insisted on the literal truth of Genesis, only to have his arguments convincingly demolished by Huxley. According to the few contemporary accounts, however, nothing of the sort happened and the discussion between the two men was on purely scientific matters, on which Wilberforce, contrary to the story as it has gradually developed, was very well informed.

Those who wish to study the subject further might be displeased by the absence of references. Readers who are not Christians might perhaps find this book too biased for their taste, but if they take the author's beliefs into account they will find it an interesting survey of an important topic. -- John Harney

1 comment:

cda said...

I recall Stephen Jay Gould on TV many years ago saying that there were no minutes of that debate between Wilberforce and Huxley, and that the story of Huxley saying he would prefer to be descended from an ape than from Wilberforce was very likely a myth that had sprung up long afterwards.